C60 and Astaxanthin - a review of the evidence for two powerful antioxidants

by Aaron Silver-Pell

12/8/2017

Antioxidants are powerful compounds in the body necessary for the maintenance of health. C60 and Astaxanthin are two powerful antioxidants that have powerful biological effects.  I’m optimistic about the healing power of astaxanthin, but much less so for C60 or buckminster fullerene.  In this article, I want to explore the free-radical theory of aging, antioxidants and why there’s such a buzz in the health and longevity communities about these two supplements and explain why I’m excited about these two compounds as well as a bit scared.  Basically, there’s the potential that these two compounds could accelerate cancer formation, increase health and lifespan or potentially both.  I’ll tell you what I know about them and you can make your own decision.  Lots of people are already taking these supplements, and it’s worth exploring the benefits and dangers.  

Background

 According to the free radical theory of aging (FRTA) otherwise known as the reactive oxygen species (ROS) theory proposed by Dennis Harman in the 1950’s posits that at least some, if not all, of the damage we see to the body is caused by molecules with a singlet oxygen atom in them or otherwise have free-radicals.  Chemical with oxygen in them can sometimes lose an electron and the outer shell of the oxygen atom then has 7 electrons instead of the happy valence of 8 which makes atoms at this size stable and happy; this makes oxygen one of the more reactive elements and you can especially see this when you think about how necessary it is to have oxygen around for things to burn.  Oxygen is so toxic that when it first started to fill up the earth’s atmosphere 2 billion years ago, nearly every living creature on earth died.  Life recovered and found ways to work with gaseous oxygen, but it’s been discovered that as we age, ROS accumulates in tissues and there is a lot of direct and indirect evidence that this can create havoc within the body as proteins become misfolded, DNA is damaged and cross-linking occurs between micro-architecture. One long-lived animal we know about, naked mole-rats live underground and one reason that they may live longer than other animals their size is that they live in the oxygen deprived environment of the earth rather than the oxygen rich environment above-ground. 

Antioxidants are chemical that have a high affinity for free-radicals and ROS and can render them harmless.  Many times, these molecules have a conjugated system of carbon atoms with alternating double and single bonds.  What this means is that electrons are shared amongst a number of atoms rather than just one and this is what gives them their remarkable ability to preferentially bond with highly reactive free-radical species.  Thus, the antioxidants neutralize the ROS/free radicals and serve as a protective mechanism for the body.   Within the body, there’s a variety lots of different kinds of anti-oxidants including ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), uric acid, glutathione, the main antioxidant of the liver, melatonin, selenium, zinc, ubiquinol, carotenes, alpha-tocopherol, super-oxide dismutase (SOD) and lipoic acid just to name a few.   

We know that ingesting plants, in general, is really healthy for people and that many of the especially healthy brightly colored ones contain lots of antioxidants of various kinds.  Dark leafy greens contain lots of polyphenols;  blueberries, cranberries and chocolates contain lots of flavonoids; herbs such as goldenseal, goldthread and barberry contain berberines.  There’s lots; If you wanted to, you could probably do an entire PhD project just on the different kinds of antioxidant chemicals found in different plants.  In plants at least, the evidence is that antioxidants are good and more is better. 

 Lots of animal studies have been done with antioxidants that show a clear benefit to the lifespan or health of experimental animals.  Thioproline increases the lifespan of flies, N-acetyl cystein (NAC) a precursor to glutathione has been shown to increase lifespan of flies and worms, although it’s not clear whether we can prove this occurs in humans.  Melatonin has been shown to increase the lifespan of rats. 

 Thus, it makes sense that you might want to give people anti-oxidants to make them healthy. In the 1990’s for example, there was something of a fad in health conscious people to take mega-doses of vitamin C or E in the hopes of extending their lives and it’s still very, very popular.   This was backed up by animal research which showed that these vitamins could have powerful health effects.  

 However, some recent research has actually shown the opposite: giving people megadoses of anti-oxidant vitamins does not actually extend their lives and actually increases the risk of cancer.  In addition, one study found that they could increase the lifespan of worms by a factor of ten by knocking out the gene for coQ10, an antioxidant compound now sold in healthstores!   Additionally, some people in the anti-aging community such as physicist Josh Mitteldorf point out that oxidative damage may be more important in smaller, shorter-lived species such as flies and rodents and less important in larger species such as whales and humans.  Thus, our initial enthusiasm about the potential healing power of antioxidants should be tempered by some caution. 

This is an important fact to keep in mind when you are reading about life-extension compounds in mice, flies and roundworms.  Our friends, the naked mole-rats also don’t really have very good anti-oxidants within their bodies, but it doesn’t seem to hurt them much. 

In the studies that show an increase in the risk of dying at least, what could be happening is that anti-oxidants are not discriminating in what cells in your body they give benefits to.  Unhealthy, precancerous cells may lack the ability to protect themselves against free-radical damage and naturally many of them may die from this.  However, if you flood the body with powerful exogenous antioxidants, they suddenly are protected and they have the chance to grow.  

So, thus far, the evidence is mixed with respect to antioxidants and there’s probably a really complex and involved story going on with respect to the role of anti-oxidants and anti-oxidant damage in the human body.  We know plants have a generally anti-cancer property so they can’t be all bad. Theoretically, we know that anti-oxidants are crucial to staying alive and that oxygen damage is very reactive.  What really complicates the picture is that most compounds that are anti-oxidants also have other powerful biological effects and it may be these effects that are important rather than the antioxidant effects. For instance, we know that melatonin tends to decrease in age and that giving melatonin to rats extends their lives, but melatonin also regulates sleep-awake cycles and it’s the regulation of sleep/wake cycles; that’s probably the more important effect.  Plant compounds also have a lot of fiber and have have a positive effect on gut bacteria.  The folks at the life extension foundation (www.lifeextension.com) think that the negative studies on the link between antioxidants and aging is actually bad science and that you should still take them, however, they sell supplements for a living so it’s doubtful they would be too negative about any supplements.  

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Astaxanthin

Astaxanthin is a very unique antioxidant.  It’s found in a variety of sea creatures including salmon, krill, shrimp, lobster and crabs and in a small sea bacteria called haemococcus pluvialis at concentrations up to 5000 times as high than in crustaceans and fish.  It has a brilliant red color and it’s approved as a food dye in Europe and America.  Like many antioxidants, astaxanthin is a long-chain carbon molecule with alternating single and double bonds which allows it to share it’s electrons across a wide area.  Salmon is known to have powerful health benefits, at least partly through the high amount of omega-3’s, but it’s possible that astaxanthin also has a role.  What interested me about astaxanthin is that it’s about 550 times more powerful than vitamin E at quelching singlet oxygen damage and 11 times more powerful than beta-carotene.  That’s powerful!

People have done a lot of research on the effect of astaxanthin in the human body and most of the reports are very encouraging.  Examine.com has compiled a good list of some of these studies which is referenced in the bibliography.  Some of the effects they found were: increased muscle endurance, sperm motility, decreased LDL, decreased lipid peroxidation in overweight people, probable protection from UV radiation in the eyes and general anti-inflammatory effects.  There’s one study that shows a decrease in estradiole activity in women and a decrease of menopausal symptoms when taken with other anti-oxidants.  Applied to the face, studies have shown it reduces wrinkles in women, some studies show that decreases signs of dementia.  The life extension foundation lists studies showing that it has anti-cancer properties. 

Additionally, Cyanotech, a micro-algae company has kindly compiled a list of studies on the effects on astaxanthin in laboratory animals and other medical research in 2013.  These studies suggest that astaxanthin reduces DNA oxidase damage, protects against iron toxicity, protects against certain toxic substances that induce oxidative stress, has positive effects on cell membrane permeability, has positive effects on human cells in-vitro, improved oxidative stress biomarkers in overweight humans, protects mitochondria, reduces inflammation and inhibits nF-kB kinase a potent inflammation agent, blocks nitric-oxide synthase in the eye, attenuated muscle degeneration in old rats, reduces activated-macrophage activity, reduced wrinkles, improved eye fatigue from using screens, protects neurons from oxidative damage, improved blood pressure in hypertensive rats, was protective in cardiovascular disease, attenuated thrombosis in rats and had was anti-cancer. Someone even did a study on oxidative stress markers for three weeks in smokers and found that supplementation with astaxanthin evinced an improved oxidative stress profile in the smokers.

So far, no one has shown anything showing that astaxanthin is dangerous for human consumption, but the studies that show an increase in cancer from other exogenous anti-oxidants suggest that it may be possible.  Berkeley wellness, a website put up by the University of California, Berkeley cautions that many of the studies on astaxanthin’s benefits are short-term, not peer-reviewed, may not be well-designed and that there has been mixed results.  

Supplement manufacturers certainly have an interest in selling supplements, but still, the sheer number of positive studies convince me that it’s probably not the case that this compound is not just a flash in the pan.  There’s a chance that by taking it, I may be increasing my chance of cancer, but that’s contra-indicated by other research which shows anti-cancer properties and there is almost certainly benefits as far as increasing “health-span” through reducing eye-strain, protecting neurons and the heart and reducing muscle fatigue.  Because of this, I’m willing to bet that astaxanthin is beneficial to me and would be to most other people. 

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C60

C60 is a powerful antioxidant and nano-molecule also know as buckminster fullerene.  There’s a lot of hype around C60 right now and it’s all linked to one study done by Baati et al, that showed a nearly doubling of rat lifespan by administration of C60 in olive oil.  The structure of buckminster fullerene is that of a geodesic sphere created by a lattice of carbon molecules bonded with each other.  It can be relatively cheaply made. The study was done by administering C60 with olive oil after centrifuging the two together and letting them sit for a week to allow the molecules to be suspended properly.

The study was posted on kurzweil.net and although I can’t confirm how many people are now taking this supplement,  I can confirm that many people on the internet are excited about it.  I have found several people on the internet selling the C60, olive oil mixture and a slew of anecdotal reports by people taking the elixir.  On reddit, I even found someone who claimed that it helped his cat’s arthritis and I found another scientific article that found anti-inflammatory properties for osteo-arthritis. 

However, I have a lot of grave concerns about C60 supplementation. The first concern is that no one has replicated the original study.  I found another study in mice that found a 13% longevity increase, but I haven’t been able to find anything else.  13% is not 90%: that’s a big difference. For most compounds, before they can be considered safe for human consumption, they have to be repeatedly tested.   When you have a powerful substance like this that has one study behind it, I think that what can happen is that a lot of hopeful and\or desperate people can start experimenting on themselves without really researching the compound or considering all of it’s effects or whether, perhaps, something is wrong with the original study.  Furthermore, one of the authors of this paper sells C60 in his company, so he has an incentive to upsell the product.  The other concern is that they used an exceptionally small sample size.  Usually, to be statistically significant you have to have about 30 animals per group.  Finally, in the study, they also showed an exceptional benefit to longevity of simply ingesting olive oil alone.  Granted, olive oil has lots of rep as a “healthy food” for good reasons, but it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s going to extend anyone’s life by years.  This is all evidence that this study is seriously flawed. 

There’s lots of other reasons to be concerned about taking C60;  It’s a powerful antioxidant, but if it’s exposed to light or mixed with water instead of oil, it becomes a pro-oxidant rather than anti-oxidant.  Because it’s unregulated and sold on the internet, even if it has the health benefits its proponents claim, you could become the victim of sloppy preparation.   Unlike astaxanthin, it is not a natural compound and humans do not have a long history of exposure to it, so we don’t have many clues as to how it effects us.  Then there’s the potential genotoxicity as delineated by a 2009 study by Folkmann et. al., but it gets worse:  other studies have shown that it’s capable of unwinding DNA.   Granted, there are enzymes that “rewind” DNA, so this may not be a problem, but DNA damage is scary.  When you dig deeper, you find that there’s evidence that buckyballs can “bio-accumulate” in the body, which means that if you ingest C60 on a regular basis, your body may be saturated with them for a long time with no known means of removing them.     

Basically, what all this amounts to is that buckminster fullerene could extend your life….but there’s lots of reasons to think you could get cancer or other dysfunctional disease.   Today, some people think that it could be a miracle cure, but I am concerned that in the future we are going to find that these nano-particles have health consequences we don’t know about.  C60 is clearly a powerful molecule, but the lack of studies on its effectiveness in rats and humans and its potential bio-accumulation and genotoxicity make me want to keep a safe distance from it.  If you do decide to try it, at the very least familiarize yourself with the toxicology research that has already been done on it.

Conclusion

Personally, I take astaxanthin and feel safe doing so.   There are hundreds of studies done on it, almost all of them showing no ill effect or beneficial effects.  There are not a whole lot of human studies, but people have been eating salmon forever and they’re ok. I don’t think I’m increasing my risk of cancer, but even if I’m wrong, there’s other proven benefits to it.   I get as many other anti-oxidants in food as I possibly can although I do not supplement myself with A, C or E.  I’m particularly fond of coffee, chocolate, frozen wild blueberries and kale. I also take NAC which is a precursor to glutathione.  I don’t take C60 and the more I know about it the more reason for concern I have.  I don’t want anything that potentially destroys my genes and bioaccumulates in my body and I think that the benefits of the substance are probably transitory.  I could be proved wrong, but it’s not going to hurt me to wait and see and I think you should take the same approach.   When there’s ten or twenty studies showing life-span extension in rats and humans, I’ll reconsider, but for now I think it’s safe to pass.  There’s a whole area of medicine emerging right now called nanomedicine and in the future we will have doctors who will be up to date on the latest research on the effects of nano-particles in the body. 

You only have one body and I would recommend that anyone who is serious about life extension educate themselves in a very deep way about anything they put in their body.  If you have any questions about anything, the person to talk to is your doctor, but if you are even a little confused about the science of any particular substance or treatment, you probably aren’t going to go wrong by skipping out and learning more.  Even though we live in exciting times, it’s important to remember not to be faddish. 

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Li J, Dai W, Xia Y, et al. Astaxanthin Inhibits Proliferation and Induces Apoptosis of Human Hepatocellular Carcinoma Cells via Inhibition of Nf-Kappab P65 and Wnt/Beta-Catenin in Vitro. Mar Drugs. 2015;13(10):6064-81.

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